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Laptop Buyers Guide: January Netbooks to R8500

Its 2013! Welcome back everyone, I’m sure you all had a good holiday browsing some neat tech and wishing you could afford it. This month we’re back to the laptops and mobile devices with the buyer’s guide. We’re going to start with Netbooks and go all the way to the R8000 budget ceiling for this month. What does that kind of money get you these days?

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2013 will be an interesting year for mobiles because officially, no-one makes Netbooks anymore. The craze started to die down with the launch of the iPad and today, with tablets taking up more of the entry-level market space, there’s little incentive for buyers to pick something from the low-end class. In fact, if there’s ever enough stock of the Google Nexus devices to go around, the entire budget segment may as well give up. The war against the Android onslaught is like trying to invade Russia – you can’t do it.

We still don’t have enough Windows RT tablets either. Whether that’s from stock issues or we’re just being ignored completely as an emerging market is a question that remains to be answered. You can’t walk into any shop and buy one aside from purchasing from select vendors and you certainly can’t sign up for a cellular contract with one bundled.

That will have to change very soon.

R4500 Netbooks, Ultrabooks, Notebooks and Tablets:

Acer Aspire One D270 10.1″ 3G @ R4168

ASUS EeePC 1015BX 10.1″ @ R3674 (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R1009)

ASUS X201E Ultrabook 11.6″ @ R3641 (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R1009)

MSI Wind U180 10.1″ @ R3350 (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R1009)

Toshiba NB510 10.1″ @ R3352 (RAM Upgrade to 4GB) (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R1009)

Packard Bell EasyNote TS11-HR 15.6″ @ R4732

Apple iPad Mini 32GB WiFi @ R4499

Google Nexus 7 @ R3500

Only three players are left in the netbook market and all three are just depleting stock as time passes – MSI, ASUS and Toshiba were the three big brands still doing work on their netbook product lines last year. This year, all three are being discontinued in favour of tablet sales – that’s not to say they’re bad buys, however. The Aspire One D270 is the pick of the lot, packing in 3G and a larger six-cell battery into its tiny body. As an all-rounder, the ASUS X201E comes closest to being an Ultrabook but is held back by its meagre processor. If an APU was stuck in there, things would fare much better.

As for tablets, Samsung’s out of the run in the low-end because the Galaxy Tab 2 7″ now commands a RRP of R5000, putting it far above budget for this segment. You’d be nuts to get that anyway, considering the Nexus 7 is in stock. Its just better, not in terms or hardware or specifications, but because it delivers everything you’d ask for in a tablet for less than R4000. Tablets under the R4000 price point are the entire reason why netbooks aren’t popular anymore.

Once again, meh. Netbooks still have huge potential, but its just not being realised. Oh wait, there’s also Packard Bell’s EasyNote picking up the budget gaming segment. The combination of the Core i3 dual-core chip and Nvidia’s GT630M discrete graphics card enables gaming at medium quality settings at 720p resolution.

R6000 Gaming and business Notebooks, Ultrabooks and Tablets:

ASUS K53Z 15.6″ @ R5335 (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R1009)

ASUS Vivobook X202E Touch 11.6″ @ R5500

HP Pavilion Sleekbook 14″ @ R5999

Lenovo Thinkpad T420 14.1″ @ R5406 (RAM Upgrade to 8GB)

Mecer JW6 Ultrabook 14″ @ R5374 (Toshiba 320GB HDD, 4GB RAM) (Windows 8 64-bit @ R894)

Packard Bell EasyNote TS11-HR 15.6″ @ R4732 (RAM Upgrade to 4GB) (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R1009)

ASUS Transformer TF301 Slate 10.1″ @ R5139

Apple iPad Mini 32GB 3G @ R5900

It should come as no surprise that there’s little choice in the R6000 segment. The deprecation of the value of cheap notebooks has been accelerated by the tablet revolution. Not only that, but there’s another factor here that’s mucking things up for everyone – Intel. Currently, most notebooks under R6000 have to rely on Intel’s HD graphics that share die space with the CPU. Its not gaming-capable like AMD’s APUs are, although it allows users to do everything they’d probably require from a laptop like light photo and video editing.

The only notebooks capable of gaming here as the EasyNote and the ASUS K53Z. Both will power most titles along at 720p resolution with low-to-medium settings. Its a pity that AMD’s mobile APUs don’t use better memory controllers so you can put higher-spec RAM in for better framerates, but that’ll probably be fixed with when Steamroller ploughs its way into 2014.

Lenovo’s Thinkpad T420 is the only business-orientated notebook that I’d be seriously looking at. It does have a non-gloss screen which is a chief requirement and it also has a wide range of docks and accessories available. Despite the measly 1366 x 768 resolution, you can plug this into a larger monitor for more real estate – hey, it packs Displayport for just that reason!

You probably could also count the Mecer JW6 into the picture, but its build quality and glossy screen isn’t what most business users would be looking for. Its more versatile than the HP Sleekbook but you wouldn’t be buying any of these Ultrabooks for their performance anyway. Speaking of performance, the Vivobook X202E probably falls behind everything else here, at least in terms of notebook performance, but makes up for it with a capacitive, multi-touch screen. Its just the X201E with a few hardware upgrades, really.

When you’re looking at tablets, I’d back the 3G-packing iPad mini rather than its larger, 10-inch WiFi-only brother. Honestly, I’d have the internet at my fingertips rather than a higher resolution screen, even though the Retina display is stunning. There’s also the ASUS Transformer to think about, but the Nexus 7 has made every other tablet with Tegra 3 hardware redundant. Unless its packing 3G, your tablet pretty much becomes a paperweight away from a WiFi hotspot, even if you do use it to watch an episode of that series you once torrented while sipping coffee at Mugg & Bean.

R8500 Gaming and Business Notebooks, Premium Ultrabooks and Tablets:

ASUS S400A Ultrabook 14″ @ R8398

Dell Inspiron 13z 13.3″ @ R7339 (SSD Upgrade: Intel 330 MLC 120GB @ R1221)

Dell Latitude E5430 14″ HD @ R8271

Gigabyte Q1542N 15.6″ @ R8548

HP Pavilion G6 (B8G86EA) 15.6″ @ R7975 (RAM Upgrade to 8GB)

HP Pavilion G7 (B6K51EA) 17.3″ @ R8389 (RAM Upgrade to 8GB)

Lenovo Ideapad U310 13.3″ @ R7581 (SSD Upgrade: Intel 330 MLC 120GB @ R1221)

Lenovo Thinkpad X220 @ R7943 (SSD Upgrade: Intel 330 MLC 120GB @ R1221)

Mecer UT40II 14″ @ R7292 (Toshiba 500GB HDD, 8GB RAM) (Windows 8 64-bit @ R894)

MSI GE60 15.6″ @ R8548

Toshiba Satellite L850 15.6″ @ R7339 (SSD Upgrade: TEAM Xtreem S2 120GB @ R1009)

ASUS Transformer Infinity TF700T  10.1″ w/keyboard dock @ R7823

ASUS Transformer TF600 Slate 10.1″ @ R8494

Apple iPad 64GB 3G @ R8599

Ooookay, so there’s a lot more choice this month than I expected. Lets get the largest group over with – the gaming laptops. That’s Gigabyte’s Q1542N (once again, its becoming a staple now, really), HP’s Pavilion G6 and G7 notebooks, the MSI GE60 and Toshiba’s staple L850. The Q5142N and the MSI GE60 are actually on par when you consider what both notebooks are capable of – MSI’s offering tends to be gaming-orientated because of the extra graphics beef, but Gigabyte’s got a more all-rounder feel to it thanks to the quad-core. Flip a coin, really, but the Q1542N will fare better in Battlefield 3 thanks to the four physical cores.

Strangely enough, this is the first time this guide has had the option of recommending an HP notebook for gaming and that’s exactly what happened here – the G6 and G7 both offer similar hardware, but the G7 is officially the cheapest 17″ gaming notebook available in SA. The Radeon HD7670 should drive things along nicely at medium to high settings and aside from the screen and chassis, they’re both identical when you get into their guts. My pick is still the Q1542N, though, even though the G7’s real estate boost is very welcome.

Lets move onto the business end of things: Dell has the Inspiron 13z and the Latitude E5430, Lenovo has its Ideapad U310 and Thinkpad X220, whilst Mecer might qualify with its UT40II. HPs Elitebook range is unfortunately out of reach in this budget so if you take it all at face value, the Latitude walks away with an easy win. But – haha! – its not that simple. The Inspiron 13z has the advantage of being lighter and better-looking even though its not as powerful, nor does it boast a backlit keyboard. Lenovo’s U310 might wedge itself in here because it looks like a Apple Macbook but feels like a business notebook. The tiny X220 might be an option for power users who want more portability and like the various dock options along with it.

The ASUS S400A carves a niche for itself as a good-looking, cheaper version of the company’s popular Zenbook range. There’s also the same bonus that Mecer’s UT40II offers – an mSATA port. You could keep in the stock hard drive and simply upgrade to a larger mSATA SSD, enjoying the convenience of both solid-state and mechanical storage. The UT40II has the larger battery, though.

And finally, the tablets. Introducing the first Windows RT-based one we’ll see in this guide; ASUS’ TF600 Slate. The Transformer series is best known for packing in a well-designed keyboard that also nearly doubles battery life. However, that high price does have its caveats when you compare it to the similar Android-running TF700T – it has a better screen, longer battery life and faster hardware. The Slate, meanwhile, brings 3G and more RAM to the table, along with better gaming support if Valve finds a way to make its Steam client and games catalogue compatible with Windows RT.

If its productivity you’re after, go for the TF600 Slate. If you’d like to do more consuming than creating, the TF700T will impress you with that amazing screen, as will Apple’s iPad. Even when you work in the limitation of Windows RT, you’re still spoilt for choice.

Thats’ all for this week fellas! Tune in next time for the next episode of the guide if you or someone you know wants to burn some money on mobility.

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